Waterfront properties have always been desirable for their views and the relaxation that comes with watching light play on water. But since the pandemic hit, vacation-home markets along the Chesapeake Bay have experienced a dramatic increase in buyers.
“We’ve seen a sea change in demand,” says Chuck Mangold, an associate broker with Benson & Mangold Real Estate in Easton, Maryland. “This is the lowest inventory of homes for sale I’ve seen in 20 years because buyers have swept in and bought everything available.”
A similar story is playing out in Virginia’s Northern Neck, where demand is substantially higher than normal, says Susan Bowman, a realtor with Bay Properties/One South Realty Group in White Stone, Virginia. “We usually see people from Richmond and the DC area here, but this year people are coming from farther away to buy homes—as far as Minnesota and Philadelphia,” she reports. “And they’re staying longer because they’ve discovered they can work from here and live on the water.”
For most buyers, the priority is space for family and friends to gather—with more bedrooms than they may need in their permanent residences. In addition, Bowman says, people want a place where they can have fun outdoors with boats and fire pits, then gather on a big screened porch to play games, read—and enjoy the view.
What to Look For
About 75 to 80 percent of second-home buyers on the Eastern Shore would prefer a waterfront home, says Mangold—though landlocked Easton and quaint St. Michaels have evolved into destinations of their own with art, culture and restaurants that are almost as big a draw as boating. “And some people want to live where they can walk to town,” he notes.
On the Eastern Shore, custom homes are more popular than those in planned neighborhoods, which typically have homeowner’s associations that require property owners to pay dues and follow community rules. These enclaves sometimes offer amenities such as a swimming pool or a dock in addition to services including trash and snow removal.
“The homes in HOAs tend to be a little less costly, but the fees and town taxes add to ongoing expenses,” Mangold explains. “Some people like having access to a fitness center, pools and tennis in an HOA, but I find that most second-home buyers would rather have a stand-alone house.”
While waterfront properties are often the preference of homebuyers in Virginia, Bowman says the quiet of the area, with its old-fashioned towns, is also a draw. “Some people want the peace and solace of being away from a city and don’t care whether they have a water view or not,” she observes. “Others are nostalgic for a quieter way of life in a town where they have a sense of safety and camaraderie, with an ice cream shop on the corner and little cafés.”
The Boating Life
Buyers on the bay typically prioritize boating, which in turn drives their choice of a home. “Many people think they want a house right on the bay with endless water views, but your house and your boat can take a beating from all the wind,” Bowman notes. “A deep-water creek may be a better option because you get the water view, but your property is a little more protected. Your boat and your dock will last longer.” Keep in mind that some HOAs on the Northern Neck prohibit residents from keeping a boat on land—so if you envision taking your boat out of the water for the winter, you’ll want to ask about that rule.
Most waterfront homes on the Eastern Shore have private piers with water and electricity. One caveat: Boaters should be sure to check the water depth for the entire route they want to take from their home into the Chesapeake Bay. “A buyer purchased a home with the water depth he needed around his pier,” Mangold recalls. “But he found he couldn’t get the boat past a nearby cove because the cove wasn’t deep enough.”
Bowman recommends tracing the waterway from the house you want to buy all the way to the bay or the Potomac River. “Sometimes listings say they have water access, but really you’re just stuck on a pond,” she says. “You could be on a big, beautiful creek, but a storm might change the entrance to the Potomac so you can’t get out.”
Sailboat owners need a depth of at least five feet to navigate, while three or four feet is usually enough for small power boats. Bowman also suggests confirming that the pier belonging to the house you’re considering can accommodate the number of boats you want to keep.
All in the Details
While owning a vacation home revolves around fun and relaxation, many people today are using their second homes for extended periods to work remotely. That means robust Internet service is a must. “Only about 30 to 40 percent of homes in the Northern Neck have high-speed Internet, which can exclude a house from being marketable to many buyers,” says Bowman, who advises clients to ask their real estate agent or check to see if high-speed Internet can be installed.
Another consideration is insurance. Vacation homes—particularly those on the water—face greater risk from wind and storms; they also need to be inspected to see if they are on a flood plain. Most require special flood insurance, and homeowners premiums can be a little higher because of the added risk of a waterside location, says Mangold, though flood insurance usually costs under $1,000 per year. “The risks from flooding are more about the elevation of the property than its proximity to water, and we’re not in an area with terrible flood hazards,” he points out.
When obtaining a flood-insurance policy, Bowman recommends checking for a “named storm deductible” feature; for claims related to a named tropical storm or hurricane, insurance companies sometimes set a higher deductible that can equal from one to 10 percent of a home’s insured value.
When shopping for a home on the water, buyers should consider potential maintenance issues as well as trouble spots. For instance, natural materials such as cedar shakes and painted surfaces will require frequent repainting and maintenance due to weather, while crawl spaces can collect moisture and even standing water—requiring expensive repairs to get rid of odors and rotting floor joists. Eroding shorelines are another consideration. “If there is an existing retaining wall or riprap, make sure it is functioning properly,” Bowman says. “If the property has no shoreline protection, estimate the cost of fixing the problem and preventing future erosion before purchasing the house.”
While some owners hire someone to check on their vacation home periodically when they’re away, Mangold still recommends everyone follow three important rules before leaving: Shut off the water; install a programmable thermostat; and make sure there’s a back-up drain line attached to the air conditioner’s condensation pan.
Ask An Expert
According to Mangold, home values in Chesapeake Bay communities can be even more subjective than homes in urban and suburban communities. “It’s important to work with someone who knows the idiosyncrasies of the homes and the area,” he observes. “You need to understand how you’ll want to live when you’re there and consult someone who can demonstrate the value of different properties.”
Adds Bowman, “A local agent will know to check on the maintenance needs of a property, the water depth or the tendency for flooding. For instance, he or she can look at the plat to make sure you’re not buying a place with a big easement so everyone in the area can use the community dock.”
Relaxing in a home with a view sounds pretty good right now—but first you need to put in a little work to find the right place.